Elina started her own business in interior design, focusing on sustainability and wellbeing. This has not been an easy journey, with the crash of 2008, Brexit and Covid impacting heavily. In 2019 she published a book, ‘Wellbeing in Interiors’. Although beyond the scope of this article, Elina has also hosted Wisdom of Women, and she is a keen outdoor swimmer in all weather. How has this energetic woman found her way to wellbeing?
A Way to Wellbeing
Elina Grigoriou, London
My name is Elina and I study practical philosophy in London at the School of Philosophy and Economic Science. From term 1, the material and practices had a life changing effect on me, and this is no different every year.
I was born and brought up in Greece. I wanted to be an Interior Designer since the age of 15. After a short career as a professional basketball player in Athens, I pursued interiors as a career.
I went to study a BA(Hons) Interior Design at the University of Huddersfield in Yorkshire. The most valuable thing the course gave me was the ability to develop creative thought.
Funding my own way through university meant having a variety of jobs during term time and holidays. I’ve never been shy of hard work and took whatever was available. Being a tourist rep in Crete for my father, a chambermaid in a luxury hotel, a post office night sorter and a supermarket shelf stacker were a few.
After graduation, I was lucky to work immediately as a junior Interior Designer at an architectural company in Surrey. I stayed there for 7 years to complete a £20m project which I was leading for a major brand client. I ran the 2007 London Marathon just so I could prove to myself I could bide my time and complete something big. Although the company was very supportive and I had a large remit for growth, I still needed to flex my wings. The big project, the marathon, my 30th birthday and my father passing away from lung cancer all made a rather big finish to this time of my life.
I moved to another architectural company in Central London when the 2008 crash occurred. While I was in the meeting with my directors and they were telling me they could not keep me on, the immediate thought in my mind was “Yes!”.
And this was only possible because I had started Practical Philosophy in September of 2007… A friend recommended the course during dinner and the next thing I remember is being at the School in London and hearing the tutor ask, “What would a wise person do?”. I recall how every night I left the class, my mind was blown away, yet there was order in the chaos inside me. I was not going crazy, and I am not my emotions, my thoughts or my body. It was possible to breathe more freely and I could cry from the relief.
Before I started philosophy I had been slowly making myself smaller and smaller trying to please the world and stop being hurt by it, which meant I felt like I was slowly dying. I have been gradually waking up since to what I am, and what I am not. I’ll be forever grateful for coming across this philosophy school. It has changed my life to one of increasing freedom, love and genuine happiness.
Philosophy in interiors
There were three things that really mattered to me by the time I spent 10 years in the construction and commercial interior design industry; sustainability, good design and good management. Most people considered sustainability and wellbeing at the time as candy floss and saw me as a tree hugger! So I took two calls on that Monday morning in 2008 which marked the start of my new business designing sustainable interiors. One call was to remain part of a project developing a national environmental benchmark for interiors and the other to a potential client.
My sister, Angeliki, joined me in the business and we started what have been the toughest 10 years. I was frozen in bed from fear of what I had taken on. I could not face the start of each day. But I had been hearing of the present moment, so I said to myself that I only needed to know what I would do right now and in the next hour, and then the hour after that and so on. There were years of closed doors and wasted time that I partially attribute to us being two women business owners selling sustainable interiors to businessmen who didn’t take us or the subject seriously.
In addition to my own company setup and fulfilling the aim for sustainable interiors, I have steered the development and management of a national environmental benchmarking scheme for interiors and refurbishment projects owned currently by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors called SKA rating. I learnt so much about the practice of service in the School; this has been instrumental in allowing me to have a healthy and often diplomatic relationship with many industry issues and parties to make a real difference through this scheme’s use and influence. I have been able to listen actively, believe in the good of everyone and support real change in the design, operation, manufacturing and construction of interiors.
The biggest impact of practical philosophy in my career and interior design more widely, has been through the systematic reasoned questioning I picked up and applied on big questions of my design approach and its objectives. I instinctively felt uneasy with products, materials and what was being regarded as ‘good design’ very early in my career. But soon after starting my business I had some practical tools at my disposal through the School, which lent themselves to some big industry problems.
What felt like a jumble of wires soon started untangling and I gained more and more clarity on what the purpose of design was, who it was for, how to adapt the existing known process and why. The approach I was taught as ‘right’ was one that would impress others, look good in photos, be full of ‘cool’ materials and was for a big name, client or company. That all made my skin crawl, so over a few years of asking ‘Why?’ many, many times, I have ended up aiming for something that feels true and wise. This is along the lines of ‘May all be happy, may all be without disease, may all have wellbeing, and none be in misery of any sort.’
Talking about beauty
If the aim of the interiors we all live in is not for the betterment of our lives, then what are interiors for? We need to know that the spaces we sleep, eat, work, learn or dance in for example, support us in all these activities. If they don’t, then we must accept the possibility that they will negatively impact us, reducing our health, comfort and wellbeing. I understood that the design and construction industry was great at erecting brick walls and laying floors but not in creating spaces we can all flourish in. So I questioned through my own philosophical practice what wellbeing actually is, what it is dependent on, and what relationship the built environment has with it.
The results of all this enquiry and practical implementation have been included in my book ‘Wellbeing in Interiors’ published by RIBA. Through this platform I get to speak more widely about philosophical questioning in relation to good design, wellbeing and spaces that really count. I started speaking about beauty. The biggest message I am grateful to share is that wellbeing is not in the buildings or interiors but the people. However interiors can support people’s wellbeing through being designed for comfort and being in harmony with the occupants. It is a choice we all need to make, every day. Design has power and we have the responsibility to use it consciously and wisely for good.
Although my work on environmental sustainability was the beginning, wellbeing was a natural addition. This was matched over the recent years with a wiser financial approach to steadily become a sustainable business. We championed change in the industry around sustainability for over 10 years and just when we thought we were getting a break, there was Brexit. Most projects were paused or significantly reduced, my sister’s beautiful babies were born… and then COVID which made flourishing as a business very hard…
But, so also came Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion, scientific fortitude and the unprecedented Australian fires which altogether created a sea change in global public perception and understanding. The hard effect of COVID on people and wellbeing has had a big impact on our business services. We have seen people decide to take up our training course on designing for wellbeing because they want to do good amidst so much negativity.
Wellbeing and WFH
Companies want to care for their exhausted staff and have booked their teams into our newly launched WFH (working from home) Space Consultations to support them while working from home either temporarily or longer term. Large global corporate institutions are now calling us to help with improving staff wellbeing, as well as reducing their environmental impacts towards sustainability.
In addition to all the workload I am grateful we have during this very challenging time, we’re in the process of re-evaluating company values and goals, and one thing is very clear above all. The work we do is for the betterment of all life, for truth, and applying the universal into the particular.